Big Brother doesn’t need NSA to know where you’ve been

Several of the most amazing things I’ve seen technology do in recent years are associated with Google Maps.

Such as the traffic feature.

Look at Google Maps on your phone, and you’ll see how well traffic is moving — or whether it’s moving at all — on the road ahead of you.

Google does this by — Edward Snowden and the ACLU should brace themselves at this point — keeping track of all the Maps-equipped phones traveling on the road. Not only that road, of course, but all roads, all of the time. In real time.

Now, we see that law enforcement can do, and does, something similar by tracking license plates:

The spread of cheap, powerful cameras capable of reading license plates has allowed police to build databases on the movements of millions of Americans over months or even years, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report released Wednesday.

The license-plate readers, which authorities typically mount along major roadways or on the backs of cruisers and government vehicles, can identify cars almost instantly and compare them against “hot lists” of vehicles that have been stolen or involved in crimes.

But the systems collect records on every license plate they encounter — whether or not they are on hot lists — meaning that time and location data are gathered in databases that can be searched by police. Some departments purge information after a few weeks, some after a few months and some never, said the report, which warns that such data could be abused by authorities and chill freedom of speech and association…

You have to pity the ACLU, Rand Paul, et al. They are doomed to worry themselves to death. Because this toothpaste is not going back into the tube.

I liked the way it was put in an explainer of the Google traffic function:

So how does Google know what traffic is like on the roads, nearly all the time? From our smartphones, of course. Whether you like it or not, “telephone companies have always known where your phone is,” Dobson says, because cell phone companies need to use location to appropriately charge customers for calls. That means the companies are constantly monitoring location based on the strength of signal to a cell tower, which allows the phone to switch towers as it travels. Since 2011, the Federal Communications Commission has also required that phones come with GPS, so between the triangulation with cell towers and the GPS requirement, your phone is a marked man….

Now, this has stirred up some controversy about whether the process is an invasion of privacy. But both Dobson and Zhan Guo, a transportation policy professor at New York University, nearly laughed when asked about privacy concerns. That ship has already sailed….

Indeed. One might as well laugh.

Some will say that a private company keeping tabs on your every move, for its own greater profit (and utility, of course) is preferable to the gummint doing so.

I don’t think either is necessarily preferable, just different. And either way, ultimately inevitable.

15 thoughts on “Big Brother doesn’t need NSA to know where you’ve been

  1. T.J.

    Again, my use of Google Maps is voluntary and governed by the Terms of Service that comes along with the app. Google does not necessarily collect the data and retain it. The police collect the data surreptitiously with no defined parameters on use or storage.

    To a larger point, Brad you have spent the last month conflating private collection of data with public collection of data. I would kindly remind you that there is not a 4th Amendment Right to be secure from searches done by private individuals. However, there is a 4th Amendment Right and volumes of case law that put limitations of the actions of government. The issue at hand is not how much information you voluntarily turn over to private companies. It is that the government collects that data without oversight or control. If you really wanted to analogize it, it would be like Google violating its own Terms of Service

    If your larger point is the dichotomy between the comfort level of people giving information to a company versus the government collecting that data, I think you miss an important point. I have never heard of a corporation throwing a person in jail for expressing unpopular beliefts about their brand or from criticism of their CEO. If anything like that ever happened, the civil suit would be enormous. I have read a large number of articles about harrassment of individuals with unpopular beliefs by law enforcement. And by the way, short of an extraordinary action under 42 USC 1983, those members of law enforcement enjoy immunity from suit.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      My use of Google Maps and other Google products is no longer in the realm of what I consider to be “voluntary.”

      It’s as much a part of the daily infrastructure of my life, and the things I need to get done, as the streets I drive on. Its services are something I rely on, in a more direct, frequent and ubiquitous manner, than I do the direct services of the police.

      I cannot engage modern life without it.

      I have a long story to tell about something that happened last night that sort of illustrates how important this infrastructure is, but I probably won’t have time to write it today…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        One can attempt to drop off the grid and no longer use Google, just as one can drop out of society at large — quit paying one’s taxes, go live in the wilderness off the land.

        But the cost of doing either is pretty high…

      2. Silence

        That’s silly. Go get a paper map or gazette and a paper copy of the telephone directory (before they all disappear) and you’ll get along just fine without Google.

  2. Kathryn Fenner

    If we could afford it, we could put a police officer at every corner, and every mile marker, say, and the officer could record, legally, every vehicle that passes. Not many would have a problem with that. Why worry when it is done more efficiently by computer?
    If you are in a public place, expect that you have very limited privacy for anything viewable by the naked eye.

    My next door neighbor was badly injured several years ago when a car drove up and an occupant mugged her as she was walking home from her office early one morning. If a camera had recorded the license plates, the perps would have been caught, or even better, been dissuaded from acting in the first place, knowing the likelihood they would be caught. My reaction at the time was that she had been foolhardy to walk home at 2 AM, but should her right to do so not take precedence over some mooks’ rights not to be tracked?

  3. Silence

    I think the overall pattern and broad scope of surveillance, both digital and real life, is what disturbs me most. I say that as a fairly upstanding citizen.

  4. Kathryn Fenner

    As someone far more likely to be vic than perp, I say surveill away!

    I am tired of changing my life to avoid bad people. Let’s catch the muggers, the vandals, the bad drivers who endanger us all…..

    1. Doug Ross

      Yeah, maybe if the police force wasn’t spending so much time trying to catch under age drinkers or people smoking dope, they could focus on real problems.

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        How, precisely, to you expect the police to stop random opportunists from driving around looking for stragglers separated from the herd?

        1. Doug Ross

          I don’t think it is possible for there to be enough policemen to limit the number of bad drivers. The ones they catch are either after the fact or those who randomly appear in front of them.

          I’m more concerned with criminals who commit violence against other people. They should be locked away and not released on bail to go and kill other people.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Actually, those are the ONLY people who need to be locked up. Other offenses can be dealt with through fines, community service, monitored probation, etc…


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